My biggest career mistake: I moved to the wrong job

In our new series, teachers reveal their biggest career mistakes so that others can learn from their errors. Below, John Howson, host of the TES Connect career clinic reveals his biggest regret. If you have a career error you can share, email


In the spring of 1996, I had been at Oxford Brookes University for just over ten years, for much of the time as deputy head of the School of Education. This enjoyable role had allowed me to teach, research, and have the freedom to develop new courses. In 1995, I had moved to take on a university wide role responsible for the development of a number of schools within the university. I was also looking at new posts outside the university.

So, it was with interest that I came across an advert for a job at the then Teacher Training Agency (now the TDA). The post was to head up work on teacher supply issues, a matter for national concern and seemed to offer the chance to work at a national scale on issues that interested me. I was offered the post on the day that I made my first public appearance before a House of Commons Select Committee. Despite the prospect of commuting to Victoria from Oxford, I was excited at the prospect of the move.

The mistake
Within three weeks of arriving, I know that I had made a mistake. Although I was grandly called the Chief Professional Advisor for Teacher Supply, the post was not as it had appeared in the original job description: a civil servant had been brought in from the department (then called the DfEE) to head up the section where my post was located. I had been expecting more of a ‘hands on’ role and, with a background in teacher education at a senior level, to be part of the senior management team. That was not to be and a special grade was created that left my post in limbo land in civil service terms.

My first thought was that, after so long at Brookes, this was just the ‘blues’ associated with a change of job. But, as the weeks passed, the job seemed to be a backward move in terms of responsibility, access to decision making and with a long commute thrown in for good measure.

Decision time
This is the point where the decision has to be made: either start looking for another job or dig in for the long haul. Although I have had a number of temporary jobs lasting around a year during my career, I am naturally inclined to staying put, perhaps too much so, as I spent seven years at my first school, only leaving after a classroom attack left me with three stab wounds and a broken nose.

How did I resolve my dilemma?
There were things that I wanted to learn, mostly about how government works from the inside, and there was a job to be done; not full time and not one that needed me to work for the Agency, but planning for the effects of tuition fees on teacher training and developing a modern strategy for teacher recruitment were tasks that needed doing and could provide me with a learning opportunity. So, I resolved to stay for a year and then quit. And, that is what I did, leaving in September 1997 to re-establish Education Data Surveys and run my own business for eleven years, before it was bought by the TES this summer.

Lessons learnt
Looking back, I enjoyed my time at the TTA because of the people who worked there and the achievements resulting from my year there, such as being one of the first government departments to set up a web site and putting of teacher recruitment on a properly funded footing that helped attract many new teachers into the profession.

But, the move was a personal mistake in many ways. I didn’t do my homework properly, the Agency changed the goalposts between the job offer and my arrival, and I had paid no attention to where the job would lead eventually. And, mostly unfortunately of all, I had been negotiating to establish a new centre for Brookes University in Bangalore, at that time an unknown city in Southern India that was just beginning to turn itself into a major IT centre. Who knows where that might had led my career had I stayed to take on that challenge rather than accepting the TTA post?

John Howson is managing director of Education Data Surveys, part of the TSL Group. His extensive career includes working as a secondary school teacher in London for seven years before moving into teacher training and consultancy and a spell as a chief government advisor. John is now a recruitment analyst, visiting professor of education at Oxford Brookes University.